Free Rein With: Phyllis Dawson

Feb 8, 2012 - 4:27 PM
Photo by Heidi Wardle.

Phyllis Dawson found her first pony under the Christmas tree at age 4, and it’s been all horses, all the time, ever since. She made her international debut at the Boekelo CCI*** in the Netherlands in 1985, where she participated on the winning U.S. team in the “friendly team competition” on Mountain High. She rode on the eventing team at the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, Korea, and finished 10th, as the highest-placed U.S. rider aboard Albany II. She’s ridden around the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event more than 20 times and has also completed the Burghley CCI**** (England) several times.

Dawson used to stand Brandenburg’s Windstar at her Windchase farm,, before his death in December 2011. The Irish Sport Horse stallion sired many upper-level event horses, and thanks to a limited store of frozen semen Dawson continues to welcome a few new eventing prospects to the world each spring.

Name: Phyllis Dawson
Age: 54
Home Base: Purcellville, Va.

What led you to stand a stallion?
I had a few Thoroughbred broodmares, and I’d been doing a little bit of breeding. I’d been going over to Ireland importing horses for resale because I loved the Irish Sport Horses. I was going over a couple of times a year and getting two or three horses, bringing them back, training them for six months to a year and selling them. I felt like we should really be breeding these horses at home.

I went over to Ireland with a friend to look for a stallion that was half Thoroughbred and half Irish Draft to breed to Thoroughbred mares to produce good sport horses. We ended up getting a young, unproven stallion that was just turning 3 and went from there.

What do you look for first in a stallion?
Whether it’s a horse to buy or a stallion to breed to, I tend to immediately like them or not. I’m looking to see that they have good conformation and good proportions and move well and jump well and all that. But beyond that, it’s a certain presence that some of them have. It’s hard to define, but it’s a look in their eye, an expression on their face, their sense of themselves.

What was your proudest moment as a breeder?
I get a huge amount of satisfaction seeing the horses produced by our stallion having success at the high levels. [Allison Springer’s] Arthur is by Windstar, although I didn’t actually breed him. Katie Willis, a longtime student and friend of mine who rides a Windstar baby Polar Storm, won at the advanced level last year. I was really proud of her. Not only was Polar Storm by our stallion, but I’d also worked with her and watched him come up through the levels.

I’m really excited that Boyd Martin is riding one of our homebred babies, Quinn Himself. I’m looking forward to watching him do great things.

What is your drink of choice?
New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc

What characteristic do you value most in a horse?
That they want to try to do their best for you.

In a human?
That people will be honest and tell you what they think.

What physical characteristics do you like to see in young event horses?
First of all, I want to make sure they have enough Thoroughbred blood. I like them to be at least three-quarter Thoroughbred. A good horse is a good horse, and I’ve had horses of all breeds that I really liked, but I’m partial to Thoroughbreds and the Irish Sport Horses that are at least three-quarter Thoroughbred.

They need to be good movers. They need to be good jumpers. If they’re green it can be hard to evaluate that, but the bloodlines play a big part in that. All of Windstar’s babies are great jumpers. That’s something that’s passed on in certain bloodlines. You’re looking for good, basic, sound, correct conformation. I’m not so worried if they have a little paddle or a little wing in their movement. I want them to be free in the shoulder and loose and free in their back and light on their feet. A good uphill balance is really important to me.

What do you find to be the most ridiculous aspect of breeding horses?
Thinking that there’s any way that you might possibly make money at it.

Who or what is the greatest love of your life?
Other than my family, of course, it would be my farm, Windchase. Regarding horses, it would be Albany II.

Looking back on your career so far, what advice are you glad you never took?
Jack LeGoff told me I was better suited to be a truck driver than a rider.

How do you choose names for the foals?
I have a tradition of naming them after stars because of Windstar, who’s by I’m A Star. I name all my homebreds after a star or a constellation or a name that has star in it.

What three things are most likely to be found in your refrigerator at all times?
Half-and-half for my coffee. Cheese. Coke Zero.

If you could breed any two event horses to each other, which would you choose?
Mark Todd’s Charisma to Mary King’s Kings Temptress.

What changes would you like to see in the breeding world?
I’d like to see more horses bred for the sport of eventing. In Europe and a lot of places there are much bigger breeding programs for sport horses. In this country the majority of horses are bred for the racetrack or the dressage world and the show world. There are relatively few of us breeding horses specifically for eventing, although I do think that’s growing.

One thing we’re on the way to doing is having more incentives for breeders of event horses such as the Future Event Horse program and the Young Event Horse program. One of the problems with breeding event horses is it takes so long for them to prove themselves. My agent in Ireland used to say that by the time a good stallion is popular for event horses, he’s old. By the time his youngest babies reach the advanced level, they’re usually 10 or 11 years old. By having the Future Event Horse classes and the Young Event Horse classes, it provides a way to start to judge progeny at a younger age, although you can’t be sure they’re going to go to the upper levels until they get there.

What do you think is the biggest issue facing the world today?
The thing I find the most distressing is how the human race is destroying nature. Relatively few people seem to really care about the environment anymore.

What was the last book you read?          
I just finished reading Renegade Champion, the story of Jane Pohl and a horse she got that was an Army remount named Fitzrada. She did the jumpers with him and paved the way for women to be allowed to compete at Olympic-level competition. She was one of the first women competing on an equal basis with men in the open jumpers.

What is your greatest fear?
Making a fool of myself!

What one item from your wardrobe best personifies you?
There are not too many days that go by where I’m wearing anything but my riding breeches.

What is your biggest self-indulgence?
Ben & Jerry’s.

What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?
I’d like to be safari guide in Africa.

Where do you hope to be in 10 years?          
Right here doing what I’m doing now at my farm at Windchase.

If you enjoyed this article and would like to read more like it, consider subscribing. The original version of “Free Rein With: Phyllis Dawson” ran in the Feb. 6, 2012, Eventing Breeding issue. Check out the table of contents to see what great stories are in the magazine this week.


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